Thursday, May 31, 2018

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

There's not much better than a sweet, stand alone middle grade novel. My path to this book was interesting: I belong to a book club where we read based on themes. Our theme for the summer is books about plants, so I headed to the Nerdy Book Club blog for some recommendations. The selection was limited, but I did find an interesting interview with Dusti Bowling, the author of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. 

When I learned that the book centered around an armless girl and her friendship with a boy with Tourette syndrome, I was eager to read it. There is so much to love about this book. Aven has such a sunny personality and Bowling perfectly balances sharing information about people with limb differences, without it overshadowing the plot.

Aven and her friends decide to investigate a mystery and instead of keeping it a secret from her parents, like we see in most middle grade and YA novels, she tells them and they help her. Maybe it's the new mom in me, but I love it when parents are involved in characters' lives.

The story wraps up very neatly, but that's not a bad thing in a book that would be perfect to recommend to fifth and sixth graders. I will be doing that a lot.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Flowers in the Sky

Lynn Joseph has the market cornered on coming of age books about Dominican girls. I love all her novels and was eager to read Flowers in the Sky, the only one I hadn't been able to track down. Hooray for interlibrary loans!

Flowers features all the hallmarks of a Joseph novel: an innocent Dominican heroine, family drama that reveals itself throughout the book, and gorgeous descriptions of the lush Caribbean nature. In this case, we have Nina Perez, whose mother sends her to New York City to live with her older brother. While her mother hopes she will marry a baseball player and become rich, Nina just wants to garden and live happily back at home. Over the course of the novel, Nina becomes more worldly and discovers what she really wants.

This book was a bit fluffier than Joseph's other novels, which both had political and historical elements. Flowers is a simple love story. Nina is extremely naive and, at times, it could be irritating that she couldn't figure out what was going on. I'd have to remind myself that Nina had never seen an elevator before moving to the US, so she should be forgiven her innocence. I don't think that younger readers will notice it, though. I'll recommend this to students who enjoy Sarah Dessen and Jenny Han novels.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Picture Book Biographies

Do I have a sudden urge to read picture book biographies because good ones are finally available, or are there more available because the audience has a thirst for them? Either way, students who have to do book reports have a wider range of options than ever before.

I'm a big fan of Meghan McCarthy's picture book biographies; I always learn so much and her illustration style is fun and unique. McCarthy had the odds stacked against her with the subject of Charles Atlas. In the author's note, she admits that Atlas is a modern "Paul Bunyan"--all stories have been twisted and exaggerated. I wonder why she followed through with him as a subject, rather than choosing someone easier to research. The result is a book that is weaker in information, but still entertaining.

Fans of McCathy's work will breeze through this title and readers interested in health will enjoy reading about the founding father of the fitness industry. Still, if you only have room or money for one McCarthy title in your library, stick to Earmuffs for Everyone.

Author Jess Keating did something incredibly smart with Shark Lady: she wrote a picture book that could be accessed on many levels. The first is that of a simple picture book, telling the story of Eugenie Clark's lifelong passion for sharks. The youngest readers (or students listening to a read aloud) can enjoy and take information away from this book.

Keating then included two sections for the more advanced reader: two pages of interesting facts on sharks and a timeline of Clark's life. These pages add some meat to the bones for readers doing their first biography projects for school. Finally, Keating writes an author's note that whets the older reader's interest to learn more about Clark that couldn't fit in the book and includes the resources to find that information. That's where Shark Lady finds its middle grade sweet spot. When framed like this, it's a worthwhile purchase for any library.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Sun is Also a Star

If I was a young adult author, I would feel dejected reading Nicola Yoon's The Sun is Also a Star. Man, this is good! So smart and romantic with incredible plotting that ties everything up.

Natasha is independent, scientific, and about to be deported back to Jamaica. Daniel is dutiful, poetic, and on track to being a success. Neither is looking for love when their paths cross, but sometimes the universe has other plans.

Do yourself a favor and listen to the audiobook. The accents by actors Bahni Turpin and Raymond Lee are amazing and add so much to the story. Having lived in both South Korea and the Caribbean, I loved that the protagonists came from these underrepresented areas in YA fiction. And I'm happy to add this book to my too short list of novels with male Asian love interests. Daniel might even be too perfect, but that is a ridiculous quibble. This is an awesome book.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

There's Someone Inside Your House

Stephanie Perkins stepped way outside of her usual YA romance fare with There's Someone Inside Your House. A tribute to teen slasher flicks, this novel worked for me because the horror and gore was balanced with Perkins' typical great writing.

Makani Young moves to Nebraska to escape a tragic secret from her native Hawaii (that is hinted at ad nauseum throughout the book), but feels haunted by violence when her new classmates are killed in gruesome ways. Everyone feels like a suspect and it's only a matter of time before Makani is a target.

Fans of horror films will see where this novel is going from the start, except for one twist: the killer is revealed about halfway through the novel. This is a controversial choice, but I think it was appropriate in this era of school shootings. The surviving students spend a great deal of time speculating about the motivations of the killer, which, unfortunately, is a common occurrence. Along with the diversity, this felt like a modern touch on what could be a tired plot idea.

As a sixth grade teacher, this isn't an appropriate novel for me to recommend to my students, too much sex and gore. As a reader of YA fiction, I enjoyed the novel but still prefer Perkins' romances.